The NCSL Blog

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By Kae Warnock

The scene is indelible, perhaps because it is so rare:

President Ronald Reagan lies in state in the Capitol rotunda on June 9, 2004. U.S. military photo by Telfair H. Brown Sr.A casket bearing the remains of the president or, occasionally, another high-ranking official or military leader, is placed inside the U.S. Capitol or a state capitol and the public is allowed to file past and pay their respects.

But what are the origins of this tradition?

“Lying in state” goes back millennia and is tied to the custom of honoring kings upon their passing.

In the U.S., grand processions, often including a riderless horse, date back to the first state funeral for a sitting president, William Henry Harrison in 1841. But the practice of lying in state began in 1852 when Henry Clay, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, was the first person to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol.

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. Only 29 people have lain in state in the U.S. Capitol—11 U.S. presidents, two vice-presidents, a few members of Congress and others including military leaders.

No rule or law governs who may lie in state in the U.S. capitol. That decision is determined by concurrent resolution of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, who control use of the rotunda.

But this custom of displaying the casket of an important figure in the Capitol is not limited to elected officials.

Congress recognizes two forms of this custom. One is lying in state—the person was an elected official such as a president, vice-president, senator or member of the U.S. House). The second is lying in honor—the individual has made significant contributions to the United States. For example,  two members of the U.S. Capitol Police, Detective John Gibson and Officer Jacob Chestnut, were killed in the line of duty in 1998 and were allowed to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.

Who is entitled to lie in state in a state capitol depends on the customs of each state government. A few states have an official plan in place, but most states do not have formal provisions for who may lie in state in the capitol.

Those decisions are usually made by the governor, though in a few states the governor and legislative leaders must agree.

In Colorado, the governor, who controls the first floor of the Capitol, has determined on at least two occasions—when the secretary of state died in office and upon the death of a member of the legislature, that those honorees would lie in state on the first floor.

One state has published a protocol manual that includes instructions for mourning state officials. “Practical Protocol for Floridians” (Revised 7th Edition 2012), specifies that the governor, lieutenant governor and members of the cabinet may lie in repose in the rotunda for a two-hour period of mourning. The president of the Senate and the speaker of the House may be placed in the chamber over which they presided or in the rotunda between the two chambers.

In Ohio’s administrative rules, the current or former governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House of Representatives are all eligible to lie in state, as are all current members of the General Assembly and statewide officeholders.

The casket of an elected official will usually be draped with either the state flag or U.S. flag, depending on the official’s service. It is proper for the casket to be guarded during its stay in the capitol whether it is for a two-hour period as in Florida or two or three days as is customary for U.S. presidents.

In a number of states, when a legislator dies in office their desk in the chamber is draped in black for a period of mourning.

Kae Warnock is a policy specialist in NCSL's Legislative Management program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.